The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Show Must Go On

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The DVD release for The Greatest Show On Earth plays down its Academy Award win for Best Picture. Hang on, isn’t this supposed to be the highest accolade in the film world? Why would you downplay that your film won the award?  I guess Paramount are fully aware of the film’s reputation as one of the “worst Best Picture winners”. I normally have a rule when reviewing movies not to mention the Oscars because I feel it is so redundant to do so. “How did this beat ‘x’ picture?”, “Why didn’t ‘x’ get an Oscar nomination?” – such tiring statements. I believe Best Picture winners attract viewers to a film which they would unlikely watch otherwise and because of this many films get a bad reputation as “the film which beat such and such for Best Picture”.

The Greatest Show On Earth is one such film, made out to be worse than it is due to attracting an audience who would otherwise never watch it if it wasn’t for its Best Picture win. The Greatest Show On Earth is tons of fun; at times I had a carefree feeling that I was at an actual circus (minus the smell of elephant dung) with actual circus equipment being used for the movie’s filming. The Greatest Show On Earth beautifully captures this un-PC relic of another age (“you mean we all got to play in blackface?”) full of clowns, animals in captivity and human freaks. There is even an appearance of performers wearing costumes of Disney characters; good luck trying to put that in a non-Disney film nowadays! Likewise, the acrobatic scenes are suspenseful and you really get a sense of the scope and awe; the whole thing even feels like it has weight to it so I can forgive the odd jumpy edit. – The film packs a lot of material and dramatics into its runtime and I felt like I got my money’s worth.

You could look at The Greatest Show On Earth cynically and say it’s a commercial for Barnum and Bailey, well it’s a very entertaining commercial at that and a very informative one offering a documentary-like look at how the circus operates with the guidance of DeMille’s passionate narration. This was a change of pace to DeMille’s usual fare of historical and biblical epics but he still manages to throw some Christianity in there with the scene in which a priest and his Alter boys bless the circus train before it begins its season.

Tasked with Herculean effort of running a circus, you couldn’t get a more commanding choice than Charlton Heston in the Clark Gable type role as a man under great pressure to keep the operation running and pull the strings behind the scenes; not even a train crash or near-death deter him from putting on a show. However, when your movie stars James Stewart (albeit a supporting performance), isn’t any surprise he’s the best aspect of the film. I believe his role of Buttons the Clown is an underrated performance of his and one of his most tragic. He has a permanent smile on his face (really, his makeup never comes off at any point), yet has a dark, troubled past. Yep, it’s obvious symbolism but you can feel his pain throughout thanks to his quiet, subtle performance. As the movie progresses it takes a surprisingly dark turn, not only with the shockingly intense train wreck sequence (which really set a standard for special effects) but also the implication that Buttons, a former doctor had assisted his wife to kill herself. It’s very subtly implied but it’s still surprising that a mainstream blockbuster would have an assisted suicide subplot in an era dictated by the censorship of the Hay’s Code.

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The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of inferior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok, I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, the rich storytelling, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would moviegoers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old-fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments, all these DeMillen elements work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off the screen when it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in The Ten Commandments were filmed on location with the majority being filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures help create scenes which look like beautiful paintings. Also keeping with DeMille’s Victorian sensibilities, the contemporaneous composer Elmer Bernstein is a surprising choice to compose music for The Ten Commandments but delivers an appropriate, bombastic score complete with horns galore.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; his Moses is a superman of whom you would happily follow in a heartbeat and the humanitarian saving grace to the Hebrews when he is still in line to the throne. Yul Brynner, however, is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure, no one could look better or strut wearing that Egyptian headdress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. This is a man who would do just about anything to attain power and even no has no problem telling his potential future wife she’s no better than a dog. Heston and Brynner are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back. – There’s no method acting here, it’s completely old school theatrics.

The Ten Commandments boasts one of the most impressive ensembles casts ever to grace a Hollywood production in which every role feels significant from Edward G Robinson as slimy, cocky, shameless snitch Dathan (no one could pull these traits better than him) to the devilish Vincent Price. The other surprisingly entertaining, campy and sultry performance in the film is Anne Baxter as Nefertiti, of whom I swear has to be a nymphomaniac in the way she swoons and gets excited over the thought of Moses and even getting off on Ramses’ insults, not to mention to odd line of innuendo thrown in there (“The very dirty one there. He may serve my purpose”). Likewise, the film’s constant use of the word bondage will get some laughs for the more immature viewer.

A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the easy way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. In reality, without divine intervention, would Moses’ best option be to keep his identity a secret and free the slaves once he becomes Pharaoh? Then there’s the age-old question, if God is all-powerful, then why does he let bad things happen? Moses asks the film’s fire and brimstone representation of God this when he encounters the burning bush but gets no answer. Regardless, such Deus Ex Machina doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of The Ten Commandments.

I am past the militant atheist phase of my life in which I would have to proclaim my lack of religiosity at any given point and thought I knew better. Regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, stories such as that of the Book of Exodus helped to create the Judeo-Christian values of which define western civilization, in this, a prime variation of the hero’s journey. Prior to the opening credits of The Ten Commandments, DeMille gives an opening prologue in which he speaks to the audience in person of how the upcoming story is about “the birth of freedom” in which the theme of this picture is “whether men are to be ruled of God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses? Are men property of the state or are they free souls under God?” DeMille concludes stating “This same battle continues throughout the world today”. Surely it’s no coincidence that the final line spoken in The Ten Commandments is Moses proclaiming, “Go. Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof”. This was in 1956 when the communist, centralized state society of the USSR was engaged in a cold war with the USA, a country which inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator which government can’t supersede. – Yet, this battle of Moses vs. Ramses still continues on the world stage into the 21st century.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run-down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However, the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Overblown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth, and beauty more than ever. Likewise, Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for the first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the poolside and she even starts drying him with a towel; there is a bit of Mrs. Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes whether or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an otherworldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden holds an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise, Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life-affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.